Wages have little to do with what you ‘deserve’

Dan Calabrese

Detroit police officers, who surely have nothing better to do, had to spend their time and resources last week helping keep order as minimum wage workers took to the streets. They weren’t working, but waving signs and making claims about their own value that their achievements do not support.

People who just got their wage increased to $8.15 with the help of politicians believe that they can demonstrate they are actually worth nearly twice that by abandoning their posts, taking to the streets, waving signs and attracting lots of attention.

Not a single one of these demonstrators is worth anywhere near $15 an hour. How do I know? Because if they were, they would make an employer want to pay it to them. And if you’re waving a sign in the street demanding it, you haven’t done that.

Let me explain why wages are what they are. It has nothing to do with “fairness” or even with how hard you work, and it certainly has nothing to do with “dignity,” nor with you needing it. It sure as heck has nothing to do with your opinion about whether you deserve it.

Every monetary agreement between two parties is a balance between the value of what the two parties provide to each other. If Party A wants Party B to pay him $15 an hour, that is a simple proposition. Not an easy one, but a simple one. Party A needs to provide Party B with such a high level of value that Party B believes it is in his best interests to pay what is necessary to keep receiving the benefit of what Party A does.

For example, let’s say you operate a machine that requires a certain degree of skill, and you are very skilled at operating that particular machine. You are so skilled, in fact, that you can get the machine to produce 50 percent more parts per hour than any other operator who is available, which allows your employer to increase his profits on the use of this machine by $50 an hour. You want to be paid $15 an hour, even though the usual rate for operators of this machine is $10 an hour.

Will the employer pay it? Heck yeah. Refusing could cause you to take your skills to a competitor, and he’d lose $50 in hourly profits as the result of a stupid attempt to save $5. That would be bad business.

Granted, not every worker’s wage-t0-value proposition is that clear cut, but that’s a demonstration of how and why a worker’s productivity puts the worker in a position to receive the wage that same worker could never earn by marching in the streets, waving a sign, or being arrested at a protest.

The fact that these workers are trying to get a wage increase by waving signs shows that they have no idea how to improve their value proposition so they can put themselves in a better position to demand a higher wage. They think they should just get it because they want it, or because they make an emotional claim of being “worth it.” But that’s now how capitalism works.

Let me be clear: If you’re standing around waving a sign, you are not worth it. If you worked for me, I’d fire your clueless butt. And then I’d pay the high wage to the person who wants to make it worth the money for me to do so.

Dan Calabrese writes for The Politics Blog. To read more of his work, go to